Monday, July 25, 2011

A day in the life this desert nomad…

The rainbow spans the entire horizon ahead of me, to the east. The rain has just abated, though it continues to threaten in the form of dark clouds further north. As I sit at the table, munching biscuits lathered with apricot jam and my book for company, the loneliness and the enormity of the plains I am walking on is brought home to me. There is no one to share the rainbow at the moment; it does not matter. Some things are best enjoyed with self, good food and memories of those I love. And yes, good music, that is missing. Nevermind. Far away to the north, I can see the rain pelting down on the plain and the mountains that rise from it. The wind is beginning to pick up as the sun played hide and seek behind the clouds. It might reach us in the night, maybe not. I am learning to live with the unpredictability, live in the moment. It is time to make a dash back to the tent, keep my book away, and fetch the beanie. Soon we will have dinner.

The walking for the day had halted at 4.30 pm. The first half of the day had been very sunny and hot. Reaching the van at lunch had taken a good discussion with Sim about life in Singapore/India, a dash of pep talk to self, a lot of shooting from the camera and some expletives to complete. The idea of seeing the van, a small dot on the horizon at times, and a mirage at others seemed to motivate and anticipation of lunch was indeed a good push in the right direction. Funny how the thought of lovingly cooked food helps me overcome any lows at all times. I’d imagine my Aai had called up a little earlier, saying that she was making pohe, my favouritest snack of all times and inviting me to partake of it. Coming Aai, I’d say, I’ll be there in less than 4 hours. Make sure it’s ready and piping hot for me to eat straight away. Alright, she’d respond, come quick. And my feet would obey. The van became of symbol not of a free ride into camp, or a means of rescue, but it was a symbol of sustenance. I almost always walked into camp expecting to see Aai, standing hand on hips ready to scold me for being late and then proceeding to serve hot pohe. And she was almost always there in the form of Janka, the cook. Where there is a van, there is sustenance. 

By this time, typically, we would be 22-25 kilometers down.
The lunch boxes were handed out to all of us. Chris’s lunch had double helpings and we would share what we had left with Faraz. Both of them, fastest walkers, always ahead of the pack, and therefore their need for additional carbs. Peter would be done quickly with his and move to reapplication of suntan lotion. Sim would always help pack up once she was done, sorting the boxes and the tea mugs. Lauren, Flo, Chris and Faraz would go after grazing camels with Albekh to tie them up in groups. I’d some of everything, refolding the camp chairs was my favourite chore. The support staff would also have wrapped up their lunch by this time and Wontok would be busy reloading the van. Sucheta would be putting on her shoes and helping around. Almost all of us refilled our hydration packs with the elixir of life. There were some who claimed to survive on one litre of water a day, but then they met their downfall in suffering from acute constipation.

Agii would help decide where we would camp at by the end of that day. This was always determined by where we would find grazing for the camels. If we had to make camp late one day and early the next, it was only because we had met grazing ground at that point in the walk and that time in the day. A few times, the availability of a water source nearby played an important role in where we stopped. The water source was usually a public well, or a stream of melted snow when we were in the mountains. The van would go and fetch it for us—4 drums full with a capacity of 20 litres each. If the grazing was spread across a bigger area, we would do close to 12 or 15 kilometers post lunch.
The van would drive off after lunch, making sporadic stops along the way and make camp earlier than us. Janka would get the fire going on her portable stove, complete with chimney. The fuel would be dried camel dung from the plain around. If there was no dung, she’d settle for thorns and bramble from the spiky bushes. She used this stove to heat water mostly, for our thermos, for washing plates & mugs and for cooking. For our eager eyes, the blue kitchen tent fluttering in the distance signaled camp. And for me, sustenance. Sometimes the tent would appear too soon. Our hopes would be dashed for it always turned out to be a mirage. With time, we learnt not to believe everything we saw. Or believe everything we heard from people who had claimed to have passed this way before.

The first thing we did after walking into camp was not removing our shoes or throwing away our back packs. The camels had to be unburdened and set to graze. Much was dependant on their cooperation the next day and we had bore the brunt of their distress several times now. The ropes came off, the pack bags we pushed over for the fastest unloading ever. No sooner had we done this, than the camel got up and moved forward to join its friends among the bushes. Albekh usually secured them all with a rope to their foreleg, so that a gallop would be impossible.

The table would be set up with a neat row of camp chairs on either side. A batch of fresh flour biscuits would be frying in the tent, their smell carried over to our noses by the wind. It was so tempting to just go sit at the table, but there were other things to take care of first. Getting the tent up was the next item on the to-do list. As soon as I managed to retrieve my luggage, we’d choose a relatively flatter patch, remove any big stones and unpack the tent. The wind would pick up right around this time, in keeping with Murphy’s law and almost blow us away, tent and all. Just keeping the tent steady would be a challenge. Sim then taught us how we could anchor one side and secure the other with the poles. Soon, we’d have the tent up in no time. There is much to be learnt from this tough girl, the veteran of an Everest climb and a privilege to know.

In went the luggage and belongings, time for a good wet wipe-ing session to get rid of the grime. In the middle of this all, Agii’s voice would carry over-“Tea/Coffee”. A mad scramble to get things sorted, undress, dress for the night, arrange things and make for the table would follow. For those who slept under the open sky, it was simply a matter of getting up and walking to the table. Peter would already be there, downing cups of hot tea. We’d all dig in to the jams, biscuits, chocolates or washing it down with tea or coffee.
I make my way back to the tent, keep my book and come out well wrapped to beat the rising chill. During this short time, the rainbow has disappeared and the sun has come out in full strength towards the west. The wind is still blowing but is no longer strong enough to blow clouds our way. Looks like it’ll be a rain free night, better for those of us who sleep in the open. The setting is made for a magnificent sunset, one of many I have seen so far in this fabulous country. It is close to 7 pm and the light will be around almost till 10 pm. On days that I have slept outside, I’ve always faced the setting sun. It is a great view to look at as my eyes close and sleep takes over. I can imagine my friends and folks in India looking at the same view and thinking of me.
There is sometime between tea and dinner and most of us use it to write journals, taking care of our feet, or logging on the web via the B’GAN. Besides these, I also prefer to walk around, shoot a video of the campsite, and sort my photos.

Dinner is called around 8.00 and those of us, who are not already at the table, make our painful way there. It is pasta today, with cabbage, onion, capsicum and tomatoes. The pieces of dry meat floating in the soup add variety to the taste. People are livelier now, than they were at tea and stories are shared. The expected briefing for the following days never comes and never did.
By the time it is 9.00, we are feeling the weight of the day and our eyes start looking in the distance. It is time to get cozy in the sleeping bag, read a page of two on the iPhone/Kindle or enjoy a last minute coffee.  Sleep is quick to come and I believe not even an earthquake would rouse us. 

The new day will dawn as early at 4 am, but I won’t have to be up until 6. The glow of the Nite watch will tell me when it is time and I hate it already. Right after I am sitting up, the mat will need to be deflated and the sleeping back tucked in for the day. The change of night dress into walking gear is necessary before I exit the tent. Brushing teeth is next on the agenda, will be followed by dismantling tent, and arranging the luggage for loading. Then it’ll come to my favorite part, you guessed, breakfast. Janka thinks up the most delightful and nutritious items to get us going. And she’s sharp too- plates start coming to the table at 7 am, no later. A quick coffee follows. It is now time to fill up the water for the day, apply sunscreen and get the camels for loading. Loading takes about 20-25 minutes depending on how much cooperation we get and by the time it is 8, we are ready to take on a new day.

New day. Endless possibilities.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Our ships of the desert

Besides the homo sapiens on our team, we each had an animal counterpart in one double humped Bactrian camel. Like the humans though, they came with colorful and varied personalities and abilities. 

It was the first time for all of us at handling camels. Agii, Albekh, Janka and Wantok were the only folks who had lived and breathed camels all their lives.

On the eve of day one, we met them all from a distance. At the camp by the lakeside they were lined up and roped to a common line. There was even a calf running around in the camp. As far as I know, our team was all males so the calf was probably only a temporary attraction. It was strange to see the small one gallop around and imagine him as a big fully grown camel one day. They really are huge. The family which owned the camels had come to say hello and see which crazy people would now own their livestock.

Faraz was encouraged by the townsfolk who had gathered to greet us to climb and ride a camel. He tried unsuccessfully to get on one thrice. Much to the amusement of everyone, especially the kids, he was thrown off each time.

The next day, we had time before we left since the camel ownership papers were some time in coming from the town of Bulgan nearby.  The day dawned at 4.40 am so it was bright and sunny by the time all of us made rounds of the camels. There was one which was whiter than the others; that was Shadow. Another had a blue ribbon tied around its neck. He soon came to be called Blue B**tard due to his habit of kicking and spitting. But he is turning out to be the strongest of them all. Lauren choose hers—Bumblebee—a mild mannered and golden haired specimen. There was one whose twin humps were sharp and triangular, (No, I don’t mean to describe anything else other than camel humps :P) and he was appropriately named ‘Toblerone’. There were several more that remained nameless.

I did not choose Oliver right away. I was prepared to change the name to Olivia, should my pet turn out to be a she. But I was saved the trouble. I thought I’d watch all the camels in action, while grazing and on the line eventually choosing Oliver.

Our first lesson in “cameletiquetts” was to make it sit and stand. “Chhugh” is what you need to say with some amount of force while pulling the rope downwards to get the camel to sit. When the camels are young, a wooden peg is passed through their nasal cartilage, just above the nostrils to secure a rope. The Mongolian camels are not really used to a halter or a bridle. One side of the peg is a thicker, preventing it from slipping out and on the other the rope is tied with special knots. To prevent the knot from slipping, the camel handlers push a cork or a plastic bottle cap up the peg. So the camels permanently have a rope attached to their pegs and this is the one we pulled on.

If you wished to have him get up and follow you, all you need to do is hold the rope and start walking in the front. The camel will get up and follow, unless he wants to cause trouble or protest.

There are several ways to handle the camel depending on what you want to make him do. All Mongolian camels are usually used to being, mounted and loaded from the left side. They get nervous if you approach from the right side. I noticed that if I walked along their right side, they would all move away from me and bunch up, requiring the person who was leading them to sort them out. If a van, motorcycle passed nearby, they would act the same way irrespective of the side. But this was more due to the noise of the vehicles than the side they were approaching from.

We always needed to approach a camel from the front and then head to his left if we wanted to lead him, untie him, tie him or rope him to the line. They also like being nuzzled along the length of their necks, again from the left.

A loose camel will always run on further, if chased from behind. A trick we learnt effectively from Albekh was to run away from the camel first, convincing him that he is not being chased and then circle back to approach him from the front. If you are in front, the camel will not usually challenge you and run towards you. He might shake his head to prevent you from catching hold of his rope, but the running effectively stops.

As days passed, we moved quite a distance away from the habitats the camels were used to and also they began missing their usual grazing grounds. When this happened, they started getting nervous day after day. This nervousness manifested itself in team members receiving some kicks. A lots of spitting, grunting, and moaning began happening around loading time every day.  On some days a camel sat down bang in the middle of nowhere and had to be coaxed to get going once more, causing some delays. In such situations, Agii and his team were always at hand, helping and guiding. If the load was not properly balanced, the camels would stamp their feet, refuse to move ahead or grunt a lot.

Like most cattle, the camels regurgitate their fodder and keep chewing on it. This habit gives their thick lips and green/yellow ting and their phlegm also takes the colour. Though being spit at seemed disgusting at first, I realized that the green slim dries and falls off your clothes and the phlegm leaves no odour whatsoever.

With camels, you have to be agile and very watchful. They can pull themselves loose in the wink of an eye and run on till they are dead, which can be several days. If you are riding them, they can act weird and be upset by the slightest of things like you trying to adjust your perch. If a fellow camel is acting mad, stomping his feet or kicking wildly in the air, you need to quickly isolate them from each other so that they all don’t react and do likewise. To help this, camels are not tied to each other or to the holding line with a tight knot. Their knots have to be of the type that cause the rope to be completely free in one pull. Only this way can you isolate them or lead them quickly away should trouble arise.

It is the same principle with the loading. The camels already have a thick furry blanket on their back, anchored to their humps so that it does not slip off. Over this, we used to put a canvas loading bag with two big pockets on both sides, and a bridge between. They also had flaps to cover the luggage that went inside. Once everything was placed on both sides, making sure the loads were equal, the flaps were closed and the bag was closed by securing the nylon tabs sewn on the bags to each other. After that came the rope that had been passed under the camel’s belly. First the bags were lifted, the ends of the rope was passed to the other side and pulled well to make sure the bag on either side did not hand too much. Then the rope was passed under the bag and looped at the top. Once more it was pulled up to prevent the bags from sagging and then a knot was formed on top with a loop, a figure of eight or any of the climbing knots was never to be used.  Through fragile to look at, the knot stayed the whole day without slipping. This whole procedure though hard during loading, was a breeze when unloading. We just had to loosen the ropes, untie it completely, hoist the bag from the camel’s bag and lo, the animal was free to get up and graze.

Most of the camels we had were fairly behaved with occasional spitting and grunting. BB spitted the most but is a strong contender to last till the end of the expedition.  Towards day 25, a lot of them started groaning like a human would, with loud, distinct and clearly protesting noises rising from their throat. One of them moaned every time he was loaded, mounted or unloaded. Though there is much respect, the Mongolians have no attachment to their camels or pet dogs for that matter, more than necessary. They don’t give them names or pet them often. I have seen Ger owners throw stones at their own dogs to prevent them from charging at strangers (us!), if the scolding has no effect. And I think the pets don’t expect any fondness either, they are usually collarless, wild, stinky and flea ridden.

About 4-5 camels have already been sold to people along our way since they 
had grown weak or had a drop foot.

Which bring me to how I chose Oliver. Well, he was the one leading the pack at all times and was ridden by Albekh. We never loaded him until much later in the expedition, when some of the camels could not carry much loads. First out of camp and first into the next camp.

I think he looked handsome in the neck decorations I had taken along and separated him from the rest. I'll miss you when we cut you loose, Olly!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Expedition Lifeline

Most of the credit for keeping us safe and sound, healthy and on track for the daily grind goes to our support staff. Kobesh Co, an adventure company owned by the much talented and recently married Agii Makhsum is responsible for logistics and support for the expedition. The staff comprised of Agii, himself, Janka who whipped up delicious meals, Wantok who was the handy man and Albekh who had a way with camels. They left us wanting for nothing and were always around for help, each of them gifted in their own ways. Incidentally all of them are Kazhaks by culture and Mongolian by nationality.

Agii, is the backbone of support for the entire team. He had picked excellent crew – human and animal for us. By the time we reach Bulgan to make our start, he had the camp ready and waiting.
I first met him on the airport at Khvod. A cheery face, and a happy smile are a permanent feature. I think the fact that he was recently married helped too. He made sure all of us were comfortable in our new surroundings. It is no wonder that he has been a part of the BBC’s team for the Mongolian edition of the Human Planet series. 
During the expedition, he had his team demonstrate how we needed to handle camels and load them. Since he was the only one who spoke English, he would pass on tips and advice from time to time. At first our communication with him was limited to this. Over time, as our confidence in his abilities grew, he became the focal point for all expedition related issues and their resolutions. 
He is a quick decision maker, recognizes all the risks, is clear about what needs to be done and is therefore in control of what he is doing. From arranging a ride for injured team members to the nearest town, to locating us on the vast plains of the Gobi when we were led astray, his presence has been reassuring. He has never failed us. His experience and desert skills have salvaged us many a times from the results of amateur planning.
He never shies away from sharing back breaking work with his crew, be it collecting firewood for the ancient stove, or running after a loose camel. He has a Russian make van that has been specially outfitted with additional fuel storage. He diligently carries our frequent checks on it to make sure it does not breakdown. 
All this help and service is always accompanied with a smile and witty comments. You can never tell when he is serious and when he is joking. Such is this enigma of a man.

Janka, (pronounced yan-ka), has also been a part of the BBC series team and has won several awards for her skills on the expedition. I would think that hers is the hardest job of all.  She’d wake up at 6 am to get us breakfast by 7 am. Then immediately move on to making our lunch. That done, it’d be time to wrap up, collapse the tent and load the van for our rendezvous later that day. All the loading/unloading everyday would have got to me for sure…supplies packed in 20 odd boxes, the stove, the table, chairs, water drums, the gas burner…and then she had to arrange them in an order so that what she needed most was loaded last. Ugh! She did it tirelessly for days. After our lunch, the van would race ahead and make camp for the day. The first thing she had to do there was to get the firewood stove going. Then came the washing of all the plates, lunch boxes, cups, cutlery etc. By the time we reached, we’d be ravenous. So tea and snacks would be ready for us. 

She decided the rations that we needed, and how much. Her cooking never failed to take care of our dietry requirements given our strenuous activity every day. We had meat, soya, oats included. Then there were some delightful tinned fruits, a huge collection of biscuits/cookies and an even more awesome collection of hard boiled sweets and toffees. We polished off everything she made with gusto.
She had no problem in climbing on the carrier of the van and loading/unloading the kitchen items. She had the ability to pitch the kitchen tent all by herself if required. When one of the camels ran off with our supplies still tied to its back, she was the first one to run along its side with a stick. When the van finally subdued him a long way off from camp and led him back, she did not hesitate to let him know what was on her mind and gave it a few solid kicks. The supplies it had been carried were long lost in the plains and the drum disfigured beyond repair. We had to do without sugar for a few days after that. 
She speaks a few English words and never fails to ask how we are at the end of each day. Thanks to you, Janka, we are as good as ever.

Wantok’s English vocabulary is confined to one word, machine, which he uses to describe the van. He would be about 45 years old, if I can read him correctly and lives in the same side of Mongolia as Agii, to the west. His asset are his hands that can handle the van and the camels with equal ease. He make a protesting camel sit down, can put a nose rod through the nose of one to secure it, and joke with us in Kazhak at the same time. He is extremely handy with the van and the supplies as well. At the end of the day, we’d find him fiddling with the van, adjusting things inside, tightening bolts, checking for leaks under the van body. He has this amazing intuition of where to stop so that it’d be the perfect time for lunch. 

For our daily camp, he took efforts to drive around a find a great spot. Besides a stream, under a mountain, overlooking a valley—each as beautiful as the one before it. He left us around day 25 to go back home to his family. We will miss him terribly.

Albekh was the youngest member of the team. You would not find him speaking much, but was always around to help with pitching tents, loading camels and loading supplies. He would quietly re-do any shoddy camel loading we might have done and set the balance right.
He would not join us as we left camp right away to help with the loading. But as soon as the van passed us for the first time in the day, he’d get off and make a string of about 5 camels. He’d ride the first one and lead the rest. He had grown up around them, no wonder he was so comfortable.

Every now and then, while riding, he would break out into a song. A Kazhak love song was his favourite. You can hear it here. I think it brought a glow to his young tanned face.
If I have enjoyed the expedition and been motivated to continue with the routine day after day, it was due to the combined effort of these four individuals. It is also through them that I have learnt about the generous nature of the Mongolians, their beliefs, their way of life and how they lead it in one of the harshest environments.